Paati was widowed at an early age, childless and shorn of everything that made her a woman. As was the cruel and barbaric custom prevalent among Tam Brahms then, her head was shaved, she wore a saffron saree without a blouse and that’s how I remember her always. She also wore no jewellery on her body except a ‘rudraksha’ malai.
She was small and petite but no one went by her looks. She had the authority and used it to great effect, even in our family long after her sister passed away. And in authority, I mean taking a stand when needed and keeping the family together during trying times.
Paati mostly stayed in Kallidaikurichi (Tamil Nadu) with her brother and family and later with her nephew. But she would rush to Cochin, and to us, whenever there was a happy or sad occasion. Or we’d send a telegram whenever we felt her presence was required to take charge of things.
I remember paati fondly because she stayed with us for a considerable amount of time when my mother was unwell. We’d wake up to the rich aroma of parippu undai kuzhambu and keerai masiyal boiling on the stove. She’d make us rich, creamy filter coffee but for herself, she’d dilute the milk beyond recognition. When Appa chided her, she’d just smile and say that’s the way she liked it! When paati was around, we’d just pile on the pounds, for she’d make us eat and eat and eat! Yeah, she’d so lovingly feed the dog, that one day out of affection the dog bit her and paati had to go through a painful course of 14 injections!
Saturday mornings were a nightmare when paati was around. My brother and I were subjected to the weekly oil bath routine when almost a litre of warm til oil would be rubbed on our bodies despite our objections. And then she’d give the both of us baths, with shikakai powder. My treatment extended further because of my long hair. She made sure it was ‘well-oiled’ and plaited always. She frowned if even a strand attempted to cut loose! I would not breathe a word, not because I was scared, but I loved having her around and she was the only grandmother I had!
Having paati in Cochin was like floating in an ocean of unconditional love. Everyone was the recipient of her largesse, the servants, neighbours and even my friends. You’d think coming from a small village and having had very little education, she’d be backward in her ways! But it was not so! She would take pride in our little achievements and successes and always stressed that education was important, whether you were a boy or a girl.
After spending some time in Cochin, she’d itch to go back to Kallidai to her brother’s family. Sometimes she went alone, at other times, her neighbour and almost-like-a-son Manikantan anna would accompany her on those long bus rides. She did the Kallidai-Cochin routine till she became old and could not move out of her ancestral home.
I last saw Paati in 1997 when I went to attend a function in Kallidai. She was very, very old and memory had failed her though she remembered Appa. That’s the last memory I have of her, shrivelled in age but happy having her doting family around her.
Her nephews and her little grand nephews cared for her in every way till her death. She lived beyond 100, enriching the lives of everyone, strengthening bonds between families that continue to this day. In her grand nephews and other members of the family and in some ways, in me, I see her strength, her affection and the values she stood for…
Shankari Ammal, your love lives on…